woman speaking to a crowd

Congratulations to Andrea Steffes-Tuttle for her runner-up essay on “What Career Advice Would You Give to Your Younger Self?”.

Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been afraid of public speaking. Repeatedly, I declined opportunities to speak in front of groups. In one such instance, I had the chance to emcee a fundraising gala, introducing one of my favorite local musicians and guiding an audience of successful and influential people through the evening, but instead of jumping at the opportunity, I turned it down and took my seat at the back of the room. I would create an excuse, usually something like, “It doesn’t make sense for me to talk, the audience doesn’t know me,” and find someone else to stand in my place.

In each situation, when approached with the opportunity to speak, I told myself, “No, I can’t, I’m terrible at public speaking.” I would pass off the opportunity, and afterward, I would beat myself up for not being brave enough or capable enough to take on the challenge. This became a self-fulfilling cycle that I couldn’t get out of.

In my first job after college, I worked for a well-known company that ran bicycle tours. It was a great gig, and the event’s participants were amazing and successful. There were two thousand incredible people to meet and get in front of and make connections with. 

I took opportunities during the week-long tours to interact with these people one on one, but when offered the chance to address the full group and connect on a larger scale where I could make myself known and be taken seriously as an important contributor to the success of the event, I declined. Instead, I extended the invitation to my boss. And she was greatly rewarded by new job opportunities and consulting work through the connections she made. 

I’ve performed some version of this over and over in my career, and there’s no question that it’s limited my professional path in a lot of ways. This behavior didn’t just inform my decisions on public speaking, it informed how I perceived what I’m capable of and created a ceiling for me that limited my work and my relationships. I wanted to be a leader, but I didn’t fully embrace or go all in on the challenges that a leader needs to in order to be successful.

Then a shift occurred. I started 2015 with the mantra, “better every day,” I knew that to realize my dreams of being an influential leader, I needed to level up. This mantra demanded that I do something that would challenge and improve me every single day. At the same time, I joined a new company. The role provided me the chance to serve in a leadership role. Because of my mantra, when I was asked if I would lead all-hands meetings twice a week, I had to say yes. So, while terrified, I started getting up twice a week to speak to a group of 50 people. It was in an informal situation, but that was almost more stressful since it demanded improvisation. 

What I started to notice as I got more familiar with speaking to a crowd was that my shortcomings were not in my abilities or intelligence; rather, they were in my perception of myself. The more I participated in self-evaluation and criticized myself, the fuzzier my thinking and articulation of thoughts were.

When this became clear to me, I started seeing the limiting powers of self-evaluation in my everyday—in my writing or in my abilities to describe an idea to a team member. The more self-evaluation I did, the more blocked my brain became, and the less effective I was at communicating.

Once I grew aware of this effect, I was able to turn it off. I consciously shut down the conversation in my head, prior to speaking publicly, and instead of telling myself that I wasn’t good enough or that I was going to sound stupid, I spent time thinking through the ideas and passion that I wanted to share with the audience. Each time I’m fully able to shut down negative thoughts and demonstrate confidence, without the damaging self-evaluation, I surprise and impress myself with what I can and do achieve.

More recently, I started creating more opportunities to speak in public to practice this mindset. I seek these situations out now, and the more that I do, the more confident I become and the stronger my presence is in front of a group.

Had I learned this at the beginning of my career, I could have progressed faster and more fully in my career and in my personal life. Without negative self-evaluation, I would have taken more risks and put myself in more challenging situations that would have opened up more senior positions, a higher salary, and richer experiences. 

In order to live fully and realize your true potential consider this:

First, do the things that scare you frequently and fully. Go all in. If you fail, you fail and you learn and that’s one mistake that you don’t have the risk of making again.

Second, shut down the nasty voices in your head. If you’re considering asking for a raise, going for a promotion, managing people, sharing your art, changing careers, starting your own business, do it. Know your worth and let your brilliance shine. You have every right to realize the full potential of yourself. I guarantee that you will be blown away by what you’re capable of.